Featured Image: “Subway Read” by Ann Calandro
Venice High School – Los Angeles
Give me your class clowns, your fuck-ups, your underachievers. Give me your jocks and your bored stiff, and kids straight out of juvie. Give me your stoners, your ditchers, your slackers, the kids who were told they were dumb and didn’t have a prayer.
Those are the kids I love to teach.
For 24 years I was a public school teacher. Each June, when it was time to divvy up classes for the next semester, I watched my English department colleagues fight over who would get Advanced Placement classes packed with students bound for Columbia or Berkeley or Penn. Using seniority as a weapon, they gobbled up the AP classes, and if they failed to snag those, they scrapped over Honors, those favored by smart kids who didn’t like to study too hard.
The leftovers, General Ed classes, aka The Huddled Masses 101, were reserved for those teachers with little experience, and people like me who asked for them. These classes were packed with mostly those kids who, upon graduation, went straight to work or into the military.
Venice High School opened its doors in 1911. Ninety-six years later, in 2007, I began to teach there. Located two miles due east of the Pacific Ocean, Venice is better known as home to skateboarders and classic car fans and as the location where Grease, American History X and Nightmare on Elm Street 4 were shot, than it is for any academic success. The bonus for me was that it is walking distance from the house I rent.
On September 5, 2008, the first day of my second year at VHS, and my seventeenth year teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I walked the nine blocks to campus, thinking as I often did about our neighborhood. Changes struck me daily. When my wife and I moved in, most of the homes were modest, built after World War II for working class families, with front yards that could be mowed in five minutes and backyards large enough to accommodate a decent game of catch. But that year, homes that originally sold for $25,000 were going for over half a million, and young white couples with one baby and two BMWs were moving in.
Still, our block with its 54 houses reflected the city’s diversity with white families and black families, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, Brits and Filipinos and an Asian couple who I could hear when I walked past each morning chanting Buddhist prayers with Fox News blaring in the background. Our block was also home to two crack houses, one run by a multi-generational Mexican American family, the other by a white couple with a posse of kids. The crack houses attracted white boys driving Jeeps and grungy dudes of all races on stolen bikes. They also frequently attracted the LAPD.
Our closest neighbors included Latino army veterans, a lesbian couple, a bicycle thief, an Austrian architect and his wife, a surfer and a middle-aged white guy whose bumper sticker on his Chevrolet Apache read: I’m in the NRA and I Vote. These were the folks I bumped into and chatted with on late afternoons and weekends when my wife and I were out walking our dogs.
But my morning walk to school offered a starkly different picture of our neighborhood.
As I headed toward campus, I noticed the young white children walking, biking or being driven past our local elementary school, one block away, to travel a mile and a half to Ocean Charter School. White teenagers wearing Palisades Charter High sweatshirts waited at a bus stop to be delivered to one of the wealthiest districts in the world. Other white and black teens drove Priuses and Audis to the private schools one or five or ten miles distant: Notre Dame, St. Monica’s, Crossroads, New Roads, Loyola.
The only children heading toward Short Avenue Elementary around the corner from us were Hispanic boys and girls walking alongside mothers or holding their grandmothers’ hands. Many lived in the apartments on the edges of our neighborhood, buildings that eventually would be torn down to be replaced by multi-storied steel and glass complexes to house millennials who work at SpaceX, Tinder, Hulu, BuzzFeed, Google, Snapchat, and Facebook.
As I walked, my mood often shifted from sorrow to disappointment to disdain for the madness. My neighbors, who were enrolling their kids in schools everywhere but right down the street, were sending a silent message to the kids I taught: you’re not good enough to sit in the same classroom with my children. You’re dangerous, you’re less than, you’re to be avoided at all costs. Seventy percent of those neighbors went to the polls in 2016 and voted democrat; more than that touted progressive credentials. And yet, they couldn’t let their kids go to school with the kids I love, and I couldn’t ask them about it because the answer was always the same: I don’t want my kid to be an experiment. I never knew what to say, but I knew I had to keep my mouth shut or risk losing their friendship, their respect, and invitations to local barbecues.
On Washington Boulevard, my mood usually lifted—the diversity buoyed me—as I passed a dojo, a smoke shop, a Volvo repair shop, a surf shop, two nail salons, Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Rainbow Acres Natural Foods. And 10 minutes later I reached my destination, Room 120 in the West Building of VHS.
That is the room where in 2008, I met John Rodriguez, the only student I saw twice each day because he was enrolled in both my first period Contemporary Comp (10th grade) General Ed class and my fourth period, Expos Comp (12th grade) General Ed class.
Most teachers I know hand out a syllabus at the beginning of the semester that includes a list of class rules to establish academic and behavioral expectations. Some teachers require students to have their parents or guardians sign these handouts and returned.
I never bothered with those things. Every year I just launched into my opening day shpiel, and so John Rodriguez heard it twice that September day.
The shpiel went like this:
I don’t give tests. If I gave tests I’d have to go home and grade them and that would cut into my time for watching Monday Night Football and Seinfeld reruns. And that wasn’t going to happen. When I was their age, tests, particularly standardized tests, freaked me out. I’d sweat as I stared at classmates who seemed to breeze through these exams. I sat there wondering what was wrong with me. I’d forget facts I’d known five minutes earlier. I earned mediocre or poor grades. In the two high school English classes where I was allowed to read pretty much whatever I wanted and encouraged to write personal essays and fiction, I finally relaxed and began to enjoy school. And so, when I became a teacher, I decided to mimic my favorite teachers, Hazel Thompson, and Tom McElroy. They taught me that learning could be fun. That’s how I wanted to teach.
And so, as I passed out a fat textbook to each student, I instructed them to store those bulky hardcovers inside their lockers and forget about them. We wouldn’t be using them.
In this class, I told them, they would be the textbook. Their poetry, short fiction and personal essays would be the stuff of this course. Each of them would write their own textbook, one they didn’t have to share with anyone but me if they didn’t want to.
I told them this: Two goals. That’s all I had. The first was for each of them to write so often that they began to develop their writer’s voice, that unique sound created by word choice, and the length and rhythm of their sentences, the images they conjured, the dialogue they dreamed up, the truth they knew.
Goal two: Each student would discover two authors, who at that moment they had never read or possibly even heard of, but whose work they would soon fall so deeply in love with, that they would happily turn off their video games and begin to read, and read.
Because here’s the thing: The one thing I always wanted for all my students was to re-ignite the desire to learn. It’s a spark most of my Gen Ed students had lost somewhere along the way. And I understood how that happened, because it had happened to me. Somewhere along the way, a teacher or maybe a parent or a classmate, but most likely a teacher, had snuffed out the natural human desire to learn.
For me, it happened in first grade. Miss Laughlin, my six-foot tall, frizzy gray-haired teacher whose coif yelled, “I don’t own a brush,” and who was the oldest person I had ever seen, divided my class into three reading circles: Red Birds were the smart kids; Blue Birds were kids who picked up things a bit more slowly; and Black Birds were the kids who still cried when their mothers dropped them off at school.
I was a Red Bird and proud of it. We Red Birds were always first to be called to the reading circle.
After weeks of practicing our phonics, it was time to read sentences aloud. Sherry Hartman read first,and nailed it. Donna Thompson beautifully articulated all four words in her sentence. Then I was up. My sentence was, “The brown dog lay in the grass.” I was churning with confidence and eager to impress my teacher and classmates. I began: “Thuh.”
“Nope. Stop right there,” Miss Laughlin said. “The words is ‘thee,’ not ‘thuh.’ Try again.”
“…nope.” She shook her head and chuckled. “You’re not listening. Repeat it with me. Theee.”
Miss Laughlin told me I could try again tomorrow, which I did. When the word came out “thuh,” she laughed with my fellow Red Birds. In front of the entire class, Miss Laughlin demoted me to Blue Birds. My classmates laughed.
From that morning on, until my junior year in high school, other than the sports section of the Houston Chronicle, The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, I did not voluntarily read anything.
Such can be the power of a teacher’s words.
I was certain that all my Gen Ed students had their own Miss Laughlin who turned them off to the joys of reading and the wonder of education. And from day one, my mission as a teacher had been to locate in each of my students the switch that had been turned “off” and help them flick it back on.
* * *
John Rodriguez heard my shpiel in his first period class, so when he showed up to fourth period, I called him aside. “Listen,” I said, “the District’s tenth and twelfth-grade curriculums differ radically from each other, but I give all five of my classes the exact same assignments. You won’t need to repeat those, so why don’t you do whatever you want this period.”
“What’re you thinking?” I asked.
He pulled a sketchbook from his book bag and said, “I’ll draw.”
His answer didn’t surprise me. He was wearing baggy khaki shorts and a long white t-shirt down to his knees and tennis shoes—the unofficial uniform of local taggers. Although I’d spent my first year at VHS goading my students to write, I quickly learned that the dominant culture on campus—at least among General Ed students—was comprised of street art and gangs. This was obvious because of the graffiti that marred most of the campus walls and the memorial on the patch of grass adjacent to the faculty parking lot, where a year before I started teaching there, a 17-year-old student was shot to death in a gang-related homicide.
John’s wardrobe and sketchbook led me to assume he was another street Picasso.
When John turned in his first assignment that year—a 400 to 600-word personal essay on home, I wondered if I might be right: Street Picasso…
Mind, Body, Paint
I’m relaxing my mind, sitting on my bed, letting the music massage my ears. I’m looking out the window, watching the sun’s every move, waiting for it to set. The whole time I’m in my room writing, killing time waiting for my parents to fall asleep. I’m practicing different styles, making sure to get them stuck in my head. I peek out of my bedroom door. It looks as if the coast is clear. I slide my closet door open. I slip on my black Levi’s, a black t-shirt, and the dirtiest black shoes I can find. I open up the drawer of my dresser and gather my tips. I pick out the finest colors of paint. I unzip my backpack and stuff all my needs toward the bottom.
Now, I’m off.
I slowly open my front door. I hold my breath and take light steps. Now, I’m outside. The cold air hits my face and wakes me right up. It has me eager to get there. I walk through this mellow city, Inglewood, California. The streets are quiet. Walking down each block, I can hear my every footstep. The cans in my backpack rattle. I glance left, right. All I see are light poles and parked cars. No people. I’m near. I look around to see if there are any cops or people who might call the cops while I’m jumping in.
I’m in! My feet hit the dirt. It smells as if I landed in a nursery. The floor is covered with branches. The gigantic grey walls that surround me are covered with tagging. My heart is pounding. I look into the heavens and all I see are the blurred clouds. I make my way down the hill. The branches are constantly causing me to lose my balance. I take every step carefully. I’m at the bottom of the hill. I glance towards my right. Cars speeding at 70, 80 mph. I take a deep breath. I make a run for it across the 405 Freeway. The headlights coming my way are blinding me. My ears are crying from the cars’ obnoxious honking.
Thank God I make it across the freeway safely. I’m now near the exit on Manchester Boulevard. I can see the wall staring at me. It’s the wall I’ve been waiting to “hit.” It’s beautiful. I love the way the wall is positioned so that when people are driving by, it clearly stands out. I approach the wall. I take a breather and rip my backpack open. I pull out my spray cans. My hand immediately bonds with it. I feel the coldness of its skin. I can hear it screaming my name. I put my “New York Fat” tip on the can because in my eyes, it’s perfect. The way the tip flares the paint out and the thickness of the lines is just right, not too wide, not too skinny.
I’m spraying away, letting my hand guide itself, letting it go free. The paint comes out getting a right grip on the wall, leaving a trace of fine lines. I’m rotating the can as I write, getting the perfect flare and thickness of the lines. While I’m writing, my body purifies itself—relieving itself of my stress and helping me forget my worries. Nor more getting screamed at by my mother. No one telling me what to do. There is no better feeling than this. I’m in another world. Nothing bothers me. It’s just me, the wall and the can, doing what I do best.
This is my home.
After I read it, I showed it to my wife; she’s a writer too. “Read this,” I said.
“Man, he can write.” Amy was impressed.
“He’s repeating tenth grade English,” I said. “There’s no way he wrote this. It’s gotta be plagiarized.”
I sat down at the computer and Googled “Mind, Body Paint” and John’s opening sentence. I typed in a few random lines from the essay. Nothing pinged…
Still, I didn’t believe that he or 99.9% of the students I ever taught could write this well. So I did a pathetic teacher thing hoping to bust this Rodriguez kid if he was cheating. The second essay focused on family, had to be written in class. Where I could watch him.
Which I did. That essay, A Left and a Right, about discovering his deep bond with his brother was even better than his first.
This Rodriguez kid was the real deal.
* * *
That following April, young Johnny was incarcerated for attempted murder after a bar fight. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. I made an agreement with him. I would continue to be his teacher, send him writing prompts and books, if he would continue to read, write, and well, finish my tenth and twelfth-grade classes.
To this day, we have remained friends, more like family, and continue to see each other and break bread together in LA.
John Rodriguez Today:
Fourteen years ago, in Fall 2008, I was 17, enrolled in 10th and 12th grade English classes at Venice High School in Los Angeles; I had the same English teacher for both because I’d failed 10th the first time around. I had a 1.6 grade point average mostly because I didn’t care about school. I cared about tagging and hanging out. Besides, it seemed like no one cared one way or the other what happened to a poor Latino kid from the ‘hood. Then I turned in a few essays to this teacher, Dennis Danziger; he’d told us he’d been a TV sitcom writer for a decade and he had a book published and that he just wanted us to tell our own stories, and when he read a few of mine, he praised them. He started giving me books and letting me spend whole periods in the library reading. That felt unusual, and it felt good. I wish I could say that his doing that turned everything around, but it didn’t.
That spring my older brother, Damien, who had always been my only real father figure and my best friend decided to enlist in the Navy. The night before he was leaving, I joined him for a going away party at a local bar, and that night ended in a drunken brawl. And me shooting a guy. Damien and I were arrested that night; I was just 17 with no criminal record, but the DA charged me as an adult, and when he threatened me with a life sentence, the lawyer my mom got for us told me to take a deal. I spent a year in County Jail, and wound up with a 22-year deal. And next thing I knew I was in New Folsom Prison, beginning a new kind of education. For the next nine years, Danziger stayed in touch with me. Over time we became friends. He continued to send me books. He continued to praise my writing. We wrote to each other, and I kept reading. And I kept writing. After 2-1/2 years, through a connection to movie producer/prison rights activist Scott Budnick that Danziger helped me to make, I was transferred to Ironwood State Prison where I earned two AA degrees. and was the salutatorian of my graduating class. And the way I thought about everything changed. I kept writing, and I taught writing inside.
In 2017, when I was 26 years old and had served 9 years in prison, Governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence to time served, and the next thing I knew I was back home in Inglewood, California. Three years later I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in English literature from UCLA, and I plan to teach writing in juvenile detention facilities. I know that literature and writing can change lives. Just a few weeks ago I landed a directorship at a nonprofit serving the re-entry population. I was also accepted for an episode for PBS’s Roadtrip Nation that was supposed to be filmed in 2021, but production has been on hold due to the pandemic. I still write. I teach. I do everything I do with thoughts of my brothers still inside.
Dennis and I co-authored a memoir, “Put Down Your Pistol and Pick Up a Pen.” It’s the story of our unlikely friendship and of the power of reading, writing, and teaching to change lives, and it’s made up of two first-person narratives woven with letters from our nine-year correspondence and some of the poems and stories I wrote in prison. The idea of the book is the change others’ lives, to deepen peoples’ understanding of redemption. And like some of my heroes—Luis J. Rodriguez, Bryan Stevenson, Erin Gruewell, Shaka Senghor, and Chaucer—we wrote this book because we both know it’s important never to give up on anyone. In late 2019 we did a long interview with NPR’s StoryCorps that gives a sense of our story: https://archive.storycorps.org/interviews/dennis-danziger-and-john-rodriguez/